Page: How the Watts riots changed journalism
Fifty years have passed since the Watts riots, a disaster that brought death, destruction and an unexpected, although long overdue, boost to the value of racial diversity in newsrooms.
Six days of looting, shootings and arson resulted in 34 deaths, more than $40 million in property damage and a spur to white flight from inner cities, especially when it was followed by similar eruptions in other cities.
Unlike the 50th anniversary of the voting rights march in Selma, Alabama, and other recent landmark commemorations, Watts offers us no larger-than-life heroes or giant steps of human progress.
Bad things began to happen in Watts on Aug. 11. That’s when black motorist Marquette Frye, 21, was arrested for drunken driving in a routine traffic stop that quickly turned into a riot.
It wasn’t the first major riot of the period. A similar uprising exploded in New York’s Harlem and briefly spread to Brooklyn a year earlier.
And it wasn’t the largest. Other conflagrations would erupt in Chicago, Detroit and other cities, culminating in the wave of more than 100 riots that followed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968.
But Watts stands out in many memories, including mine, as a pivotal event in shaping the polarized racial and political landscape through which we Americans struggle today.
Coming on the heels of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s historic civil rights bills and the early days of his “war on poverty,” Watts helped spur a conservative backlash that continues to push back against similar progressive reforms today.
You can even hear echoes of the Watts debate in today’s “Black Lives Matter” protests over fatal encounters between unarmed black men and white police officers — although without today’s cell phone cameras.
But as an aspiring black student journalist, I mostly remember the Watts riots for its impact on the media that covered it. Despite all you may hear about “liberal media,” American newsrooms in those days were no more racially or gender diverse than the early seasons of “Mad Men,” AMC’s series about a 1960s ad agency.
The Watts riots caught media with their diversity down. Suddenly called upon to report and explain events in a part of town with which they were woefully unfamiliar, editors and news directors had a revelation: It might be a good idea for them to hire a few reporters and photographers who could be sent out to “the ghetto” without looking too conspicuous.
Most memorably, the Los Angeles Times — now a sister newspaper to the Chicago Tribune where I work — had no black reporters or photographers, like most other American newspapers. So they deputized Robert Richardson, a 24-year-old African-American messenger for the newspaper’s classified ad department.
Richardson dutifully grabbed a pen, a notebook and a handful of dimes for pay phones in those pre-cellphone days to provide eyewitness accounts from behind the color line. Despite his lack of experience, Richardson’s reports were sufficiently compelling to help the Times to win a Pulitzer Prize, journalism’s highest award, for its riot coverage.
His story also became a compelling 1990 Turner Network Television feature film, “Heat Wave,” starring Blair Underwood as Richardson.
That meant a lot to me and other students of color who were considering journalism careers. We had almost no other visible role models in the mainstream media. Each of the three television networks had its one black reporter in that year, for which each network patted itself on the back. But America deserved more.
As my grandmother advised me back in the bad old days of all-white newsrooms: “Just prepare yourself. When the doors of opportunity open up, be ready to step inside.”
Wise words still.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.